Henk Smid: 'We must unite our strengths to seize opportunities'
Henk Smid became chairman of the Netherlands National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes on 15 January 2020. Prior to that, he had been involved in the Transition Programme for Innovation without the Use of Animals (Transitie Proefdiervrije Innovatie, TPI) as director of the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw).
'I used to think that change needed to come from social movements, but now I see that it can come from the scientific community itself.'
The National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes (Nationaal Comité advies dierproevenbeleid, NCad), of which Henk is the chairperson, issues recommendations and aids cross-sector collaboration in order to make concrete improvements and to replace, reduce and refine animal testing procedures. Henk explains: 'My personal motivation for aiding the transition towards animal-free innovation is the fact that the promotion of innovative science can easily be combined with a transition towards eliminating the use of animals in research. We can thus reach two goals at the same time, and we should do our utmost to achieve it.'
The basis of TPI
In 2016, NCad issued a publication titled ‘Transition to non-animal research methods: On opportunities for the phasing out of animal procedures and the promotion of innovation without laboratory animals, in which it issued several recommendations. One of these proposed that the government should take charge of the process, and involve other parties in order to arrive at a cohesive policy. This recommendation is what ultimately led to the creation of the TPI.
Henk continues: 'In its role as a centre of expertise and promoter of cross-sector collaboration, NCad helped design the TPI and is now involved as an active agenda member of the TPI core team. Together, we are making efforts to speed up the process of animal-free innovation. NCad fosters collaboration in all areas of research, and works towards an approach that includes ‘target visions’ for animal-free research. Each target vision describes clear transition objectives that aim to reduce the use of animals in research, while maintaining or even improving research quality. Target visions have already been enacted in the education and cardiovascular fields. We are carefully monitoring the results of the vision plans, in order to safeguard a more chain-oriented approach to innovation policy and encourage multidisciplinary collaboration, bringing the industry one step closer to the application of animal-free innovations.'
Collaboration within Europe
NCad has communicated its transition recommendations via various committees and bodies, including a presentation at the tenth World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences in Seattle. 'Various countries had requested a presentation and expressed keen interest in the recommendations and forces necessary in order to set the transition in motion and mobilise the field of animal testing. NCad launched a partnership with other national committees, which has led to the European NC Network. The network discusses a broad range of topics, and the transition to research without the use of animals is one of the major subject areas. Twelve national committees have already joined the network, and another conference will be held soon. Although many countries are interested in our approach, the extent to which concrete steps are actually being taken in the various member states is still hard to estimate.'
The Netherlands is the front-runner
'The larger 3R-centres in Europe regularly report breakthroughs that have reduced the number of animals used in testing. These 3R-centres concentrate primarily on the three R's: Refinement, Reduction and Replacement, which are the key objectives of research on the humane treatment of laboratory animals. With its transition-based approach, as proposed by NCad and promoted through the TPI, the Netherlands occupies a unique position.'
'In this sense, the Netherlands is an international front-runner in the pursuit of better scientific research that requires less animal testing. Several member states have a 3R-centre that acts as a consensus platform for policy content. It should be noted, however, that the embedding of the national committees relative to the 3R-centre often differs from the model used in the Netherlands. However, certain elements of various 3R philosophies could still help the Netherlands flesh out the transition issue further, through a more chain-oriented approach.'
Breaking habits and changing structures
'A connecting knowledge institute, consisting of a partnership between researchers from various organisations, would seem to be a promising instrument for promoting developments and setting them in motion. NCad could support the formation of such an active consortium.'
'We are still at the beginning of the transition, as our efforts have only just begun. But that doesn't mean nothing is happening. Positive developments in science and technology are already in full swing, such as the interactive ‘organ-on-a-chip,’ the continued development of organoids, and the use of artificial intelligence. Because of the very concrete nature of these developments and the potential to bring together many young and trailblazing researchers, I believe it is important to boost this process via a virtual institute. I think this notion of ‘virtual bundling’ of perspectives and expertise should be placed firmly on the agenda, and continue to be developed over the period ahead.'
'The transition needs time, and NCad can continue to play a long-term supporting role. It can also continue to emphasise the fact that the transition is a long-term process. Rome wasn't built in a day, and research fields need time to implement the changes. A significant challenge for the TPI is remaining in dialogue with the scientists who are not convinced of the opportunities offered by the transition. Ultimately it's a matter of arguments, not interests, so it is a dialogue in the truest sense. NCad can help to facilitate a balanced discussion. New scientific developments have made me more optimistic regarding the replacement of animal testing in recent years.'
'At the request of minister Schouten, NCad will investigate the impact of COVID-19 and examine, among other things, whether any breaks in trends are visible and how these may impact the use of laboratory animals. The question of whether COVID-19 may form a turning point in the transition toward animal-free innovation is fascinating, but one that is difficult to answer. Aside from the all the terrible consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic, crises sometimes also set other complex issues in motion. It is my hope that the lessons learned from our research can continue to contribute to a reduction in animal testing.'